Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury
“Bravo! May there be more of this kind of book!”
For those already interested in the English middle ages, Paul Strohm has written a valuable, informative, indeed engrossing book, extrapolating from the voluminous and detailed Chaucer life records what was likely to be going on during the toughest years of that famous and famously canonical compiler/poet/storyteller's life.
Some of the early talk about Strohm's project made one imagine a boldly fictionalized reconstruction of some of those fascinating nooks and crannies of Chaucer's life. Chaucerians all have their favorite speculations. Whom did Chaucer meet on the missions to Italy? Who started the fisticuffs on Fleet Street with the friar and who really won that fight? And was that an abduction or a rape of that Champaign girl? When we see right after the table of contents and a map of Chaucer's London that the author has supplied a "List of Principal Figures" with an explanatory phrase or two for each, we might well hope for something that reads like a novel, like Colm Toibin's brilliant imagining of Henry James at Rye in The Master.
Well, as The Man in Black says, get used to disappointment. Or get over it and dial it down to an interest, instead, in honest, prudent, in fact maybe overly scrupulous scholarship. Buckle down and finish the book (you won't need to buckle up), taking dutiful notes about what London was like in the late 14th century. Professor Strohm has much to offer. He knows medieval London, Westminster, and the other relevant environs and can magisterially reanimate the streets and ditches and topography. He is determined to put no foot wrong on the arcane topics of legal documents, scribal practices and the regulation of trade. And he knows the works Chaucer read, the ambitious swaths of ultramontane learning he translated, and everything he eventually produced.
Strohm also has ideas of his own. They may not be extraordinarily sexy, but they are noticeable, distinctive, well worth considering. One big take-away that may get the attention of his Chaucerian colleagues is the case he makes for Chaucer having been, before his fall from London grace in 1386, a dishonest regulator of the wool trade. After reading all that Professor Strohm has to tell us about the other wool regulators, we might easily say that, sub specie aeternitatis (from the standpoint of eternity) or maybe more accurately aetatis (of the era), our judgment of this should finally be "no biggy."
The other salient hypothesis is that Chaucer, having lost access to his best, closest audience, chose to write about his diverse pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales so that they themselves could be his audience. It's a touching notion. And should prove attractive to many, if only because it sounds a little insane. Undergraduates who have suffered through a few pop quizzes on words like "eek" and "everichone" might well take quite kindly to the idea of their torturer turning out to be a sad little lonely man performing for his own little literary poppets.
There's fun to be had in the reading of Chaucer's Tale. But wit thee wel: this is a book for scholars, or would-be ones. If you're not already into this stuff, Chaucer's Tale probably won't do the trick. At times a reader's progress is as slow as the mud-covered carter's in the Friar's Tale.
Strohm does have some nice writerly moves. He brings us right up to the October morning when Chaucer had to move out of his lodgings over Aldgate and then lets us hang over that cliff for fifty pages where he gives us black letter about London street life, prostitutes, the way large bells were cast, the way the liturgical hours work, the ins and outs of city politics. He has a few other tricks up his sleeve. He begins one paragraph with a line that would surely prompt a gratifying murmur in a Columbia lecture hall (one of his old day jobs): "And then there was the matter of felons' and traitors' rotting heads." But there's good news and bad in the fact that we never have to deal with a name that isn't explained (always a bittersweet reminder of one's hopes when one saw the same material in the "List of Principal Figures").
Quibbling with emeriti from Oxford and Columbia about writing style would be as ludicrous as blaming Lebron for insufficient ball-rotation on a free throw. So here goes.
Too many commas. In the wrong places they can make prose sound self-important, huffy, Pumblechookian. And they sometimes wreak havoc with the understood number of the verb. Here's a little taste, which might also give you a sense of how thick the ragout sometimes gets. "In the ensuing year, Richard and his chancellor, Michael de la Pole, granted no recognition of the commission's existence. This slight, and its attendant frustrations, were a prior irritant and affront in 1386." If the commas in the last sentence matter (and what punctuation should not have, if we follow its etymology, a point?) (BTW, did you hear the self-importance just then?), the single subject is "slight." I'd say it's not the verb that's wrong but the commas, with their implicitly stentorian, Sam-Elliot-saying-"Dodge-Ram-tough" voicing. Without the pause, the subject can resonate properly as a plural; otherwise, it's like "along with its attendant frustrations," taking the second noun out of the equation.
There's the occasional lapsus pennae: juvenalia for juvenilia in an endnote; "nearly coincide" when clearly "neatly coincide" is meant. Let’s take a look. In the passage, Strohm makes a valuable point, building, possibly, on Muscatine’s brilliant early work on the bourgeoisie’s interest in fabliaux.
“This kind of migration of artworks from their ostensible moorings is familiar to us today, when grade-B movies, daily newspaper comics, rap music and street graffiti move up, as well as down, the scale of social consumption. It is no less true in the fourteenth century, when an art form’s imagined point of social attachment, and its actual audience, may not nearly coincide.”
Superfluous commas again, but the ideas are valuable. “The voice and tone of his tales never strictly confine themselves to the character of their imagined teller, but ranges more widely than that.” Whoops. That should be “range.” Where’s Adam Scriveyn when you need him?
This is an excellent work nonetheless; if it turns out to be the capstone to Strohm’s great teaching career, it is a worthy one and an interesting culmination of some important trends. Medievalism itself is a fairly recent invention, requiring such a knowledge of social history, as well as Latin, paleography/diplomatics, theology, and the rest. Scoping out an audience this way is now a strongly legitimized branch of Receptionstheorie. Bravo! May there be more of this kind of book!